Written by Tiffany Creager
Good afternoon, friends. How is everyone doing? I’m sure most of us are responding to the global pandemic that has turned many of our worlds upside down in one way or another. I have certainly been overwhelmed by it all and have spent some time in reflection and in consideration of how to be supportive during this unprecedented time. With so much information, meant to be helpful, coming at us so fast, I wanted to take a minute to offer just a few strategies to support our mental wellness during this time of transition and uncertainty. This isn’t a “how-to” or a one-size-fits all article. It is a group of suggestions that have worked for me and my family and that I sincerely hope might bring peace to you, your staff, your students, their families and your family.
In my house, we are wrapping up our first week of e-learning, social distancing and having the whole family home all of the time. ALL. OF. THE. TIME. I’m a planner. I like schedules and structure and plenty of notice. There was not much of any of that this week! Many of our children and students are the same. Predictability is comforting. For some, structure is a lifesaver!
One of the toughest things for many of us has been navigating all of the roles we play and every system we’re a part of while facing unprecedented change. That kind of shift is not easy and we’ve never all been asked to do it at the same time before. This is a first. It’s okay to feel a range of emotions. For me, I feel them all at different times every day – sometimes hourly! So, for today, I simply want to share a few simple strategies I’ve practiced. I am hopeful that there will be a takeaway or two for you that can be utilized in your homes, for your students, or in your virtual classrooms.
1. Creating a schedule/routine
This is the first thing I did when I learned that we would all be working from home. This does NOT mean packing each day full of elaborate crafts and enrichment activities – unless that’s your thing! For my kids, who are 9 (today!!!) and 5, that meant building in plenty of play time in and outside, ensuring adequate time to complete daily assignments assigned by teachers and creating time for self-regulation. Here is what has worked for us the first week:
As we’ve adjusted and adapted, here is what we are trying this week. It is important to note that last week we stuck to the times pretty consistently; however, with this schedule, I won’t be as worried about the specific times as I will be about creating a flow to our day. Remember, it’s predictability our students crave.
If a schedule is something that might be helpful for you, I suggest giving yourself permission to be flexible within that framework. If things aren’t working, adjust. You’ll find your sweet spot!
2. Designated space for regulation and co-regulation
Change is uncomfortable and uncertainty is hard. With cancellations coming at us hourly, I knew right away that I and my children would need to integrate strategies for regulation into our day. By the grace of God, I had just created my own meditation corner and was happy to share it with my family! Here’s a quick glimpse.
We start each morning with a quick breathing activity in our calming corner. We take deep breaths together using our singing bowl to start and end the exercise. Because it is important to discuss why we are doing this and how it impacts us, we also did a quick lesson on breath and the brain at the beginning of the week. This video is great for younger kids!
In addition to starting our day here, we use it when we start to feel ourselves becoming dysregulated. My five year old had many difficult moments during the first few days. She and I spent some time co-regulating each day. It was incredibly beneficial to her. I was so grateful we tried it as I, wholeheartedly, believe it saved us all from hours of operating in a stressed brain state.
While I love our cozy corner, it doesn’t have to be an elaborate space. It can be a corner with a pillow, stuffed animal, crayons and paper! Do whatever works for you. My older daughter gets in her closet with pillows and a journal!
For teachers, I would recommend encouraging a deep breath at the start of any virtual classroom lesson! I have also found journalling to be incredibly helpful for my oldest and for many of the kids in our neighborhood. Many of them were assigned journaling and parents are finding it to be the most beneficial assignment. Not only is it a great regulatory skill that connects the mind and body, it is a recording of a historic time they can share for generations! Teachers and parents can join in on the journaling as well. Check out this Gratitude Journal.
3. Brain health strategies
In his book, Ending Mental Illness, Dr. Amen recommends implementing a number of tiny habits to change your brain for the better. Our brains are wired to have a negative bias. It’s working to protect us, but at times like this, I knew I wanted to work extra hard to find the positive. Per Dr. Amen’s suggestions, we have begun saying, “Today is going to be a great day!” at the start of each day as, “this helps to train your mind to look for what is right rather than what is wrong” (Amen, p.88). We have also begun writing down what went well at the end of each day because, “research suggests it can improve your happiness after one month” (Amen, 2019.) In our home, we have already seen a difference after one week. We find it to be incredibly comforting during the tougher days.
Finally, we can’t forget about the power of gratitude. Research tells us that the daily practice of gratitude improves mood, decreases stress and even improves immunity, to name just a few of it’s benefits! This can be done by simply writing down three things for which you are grateful each day. This would be a simple exercise to add to your days at home or to your virtual classroom!
In short, improve your and your students’ brain health by integrating these three quick strategies into your day: start each morning’s communication with “Today is going to be a great day”, assign a gratitude journal in which students simply write three things they’re grateful for and ask students to report what went well. Even when met with rolled eyes and sarcastic tones, it works!
4. Physical movement
Not only does exercise promote physical wellness, it reduces stress, produces endorphins, stabilizes mood and helps brain cells make new connections, according to Dr. Nadine Burke-Shephard! Whether it is a walk around the block, a workout video, daily yoga or running around with our kids, it is imperative we build physical activity into our routine right now. Bonus points if you can get outside and embrace the benefits of nature!
5. Communication and Grace
When we first learned the kids and I would be home, I created a schedule and a space for learning. I let them know that was how we were going to function. Then I learned my husband would be working from home. He is a stock broker. It is not a great time for a stock broker to be taking calls next to his young daughters who are playing with play-doh, writing stories and reading adventure books as they listen to and watch the reactions of the grown ups in their lives and, in this case, the grownups who are fearful for their financial future. Nope. That wasn’t going to work. So, we had a family meeting. Can you hear the moans and groans from there? I know, I know. Still, communication is important. I can not stress this enough. We are all being asked to shift and change. We are all being asked to adapt. We are all having big feelings. It is okay. But, we need to talk about it, we need to acknowledge the hard stuff and we need to have a plan.
Here are my suggestions for this kind of discussion.
a. Start by asking, “What does everyone need?”. We decided that my husband needed a workspace with a door he could close. My kids needed permission to play, work and not be shushed. I made the executive decision that we all needed to create boundaries between work, school and family and that we all needed to breathe together in the morning and eat at least one meal together without devices.
b. Make a plan. Our plan is in all the details above. Listen to your family, be honest about what you need, and allow lots of room to change and shift as you figure this out together.
c. Set up a time to check in and see how the plan is going. My husband and I already have “Sunday sit downs” every Sunday evening. This simply means at 8:30 every Sunday evening, we share what went well over the past week and what each of us needs for the upcoming week. Because of the drastic changes, we’ve added these questions to our dinner discussion and included our children. It lines up perfectly with our practice mentioned above of acknowledging what is going well to shift our brains to scan for the positive!
d. Be kind. Let everyone know that whatever they are feeling, it is okay. Work together, extend grace, and lower expectations if you feel things getting too overwhelming. None of this is easy, but you’ve got this. When this is all behind us, we’ll remember how we felt. We’ll remember how we persevered, how we worked together and how grace and kindness were the greatest gifts. This will be our kids’ take away as well. Show them that kindness wins. Every time.
In addition to communicating needs in the home, it is critically important that we meet the needs of the brain to connect with others. Find ways for your kids to FaceTime friends. Write letters to the people you care about. My older daughter received a note and some candy from a neighbor friend and it made her week! Small gestures of kindness and positive communication will keep us going.
Don’t forget about yourselves! I’ve seen adults meeting via FaceTime for book club and cocktail hour. I have a group text with friends in which we provide community care for one another. That simply means we laugh, we vent, we panic and we keep each other accountable. We keep each other on track and in as positive a space as we can be. I’d be lost without them.
It has been said over and over but bears repeating, these are unprecedented times, unchartered waters. We will get through this, we will support our families and students and communities through this. Find what works for you. Put mental wellness first, be kind, be grateful, and ask for help if it all becomes too much. I’m happy to meet needs where I can. Join my Facebook group that I created to support you! I know I need support and I’m honored to give it to others as well. Be well, my friends!